Pete Willcox, who (at the time of this writing) has just been refused bail and remains alone in a Russian jail cell, was my skipper on board the first Rainbow Warrior in 1984.
As a crew we spent five months in a hellhole boat yard in Florida turning the “Warrior” from a motor boat into a sailing boat and she turned really beautifully. Pete had grown up in sailing boats and being at sea was second nature to him, so taking the lead on such a big project for Greenpeace was a perfect fit. He was all over every aspect of the changes that were made. I remember on our sail across the Atlantic sitting at a sail sewing machine strapped to the deck in the middle of the night making adjustments to a torn sail, him on one side of the machine and me on the other. He was thorough, ever present, and like a radar when it came to fine tuning this magnificent campaigning ship that we had ‘built’.
The Warrior’s first big job was relocating 350 people of the Rongelap community in the Marshall Islands away from their radioactive home atoll to a safe island 100 miles away. Their island had been badly contaminated by radioactive fallout from US nuclear testing there in the 1950s. We made three trips backwards and forwards between their home island and their new home, packed to the gunnels with people and their belongings. We were in and out of lagoons, through tiny passages and around coral reefs, much of which was uncharted, navigating with people up the mast and lead soundings off the bow, and it all happened without a hitch as if Pete had done this “bus run” every day for years. The “Warrior” was a big sailing boat for such delicate terrain and Pete remained the very cool, calm skipper that he is through it all.
He was the same when the French secret service bombed our beloved ship in Auckland harbour in the middle of the night in 1985, while most of us were asleep on board. We were preparing to go with a protest flotilla of sailing boats to French Polynesia where the French were conducting nuclear tests. Moments after the first bomb on the ship’s hull went off at 10 to midnight, Pete was out of his bunk calling ‘abandon ship.’ It was an extraordinarily tough time that followed, particularly because we lost fellow crew member Fernando Pereira that night. He drowned when the second bomb went off at the stern.
Pete respects and understands well the personal commitment and risk that anyone of us knowingly makes when sailing aboard a Greenpeace ship. He has done it time and again. He believes our actions have to count, that’s the point. After the bombing of the “Warrior” he quickly signed on as crew on one of the small sailing boats and did go to French Polynesia to protest the French nuclear testing programme, because the “Warrior” no longer could.
Hollywood made a movie of the Warrior bombing and the French government’s role in ordering it. Pete was the hero in the story. It was a terrible movie, but Oscar winner Jon Voight did a great job of playing Pete and tried hard to get script changes so the movie was a better reflection of what really happened.
I always thought the French authorities failed in their mission not because they got caught but because they did not understand what makes Greenpeace work, what makes people believe in Greenpeace. Ultimately it is people like Pete that make Greenpeace what it is. Whether on the deck of the Warrior or sitting in a Russian jail he represents what people the world over believe in.
Pete has sailed to both ends of the earth and many times around the middle to peacefully and courageously protect what makes life on this little planet possible for all of us. He has done this whilst raising two daughters. He is truly our Captain Fantastic.
Bunny McDiarmid, crew member aboard the Rainbow Warrior in 1985, and now executive director of Greenpeace New Zealand